A Deadly Disease That Strikes Coal Miners Has Returned in AustraliaBy
Thousands of Queensland miners checked for black lung disease
Compensation claims may boost insurance costs for companies
Claustrophobia never bothered Keith Stoddart as he sheared coal from the wall of a long, narrow and dusty tunnel hundreds of meters underground in northeastern Australia. Now, racked by a progressive, deadly lung disease, the 68-year-old gets panicked by pangs of shortness of breath.
His illness had been absent since the mid 1980s in Australia, the world’s top coal-exporting country. At least, that’s what records showed until May 2015, when mine-veterans like Stoddart began presenting in doctors’ rooms with an irreversible scourge from a bygone era: black lung disease.
Twenty-five cases of so-called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis have since been confirmed in Stoddart’s home state of Queensland, government records show. Many of them were missed by routine medical screening, and all of them point to weaknesses in modern mining technologies and dust controls that the government is now trying to fix. Coal is Queensland’s biggest export-earner, generating A$21.4 billion ($17 billion) in the year ended June 2016.
As thousands of current and retired coal miners undergo checks for the condition, caused by chronic inhalation of coal dust, lawyers are preparing compensation claims poised to ratchet up insurance costs for mining companies, and potentially subject them to legal claims for tens of millions of dollars in damages, said Stephen Smyth, state president of the mining and energy division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, which represents the bulk of Queensland’s 5,500 underground coal miners.
“It is a ticking time bomb for the industry in Australia,” said David Lennox, a resources analyst with stock advisory firm Fat Prophets in Sydney. “It’s a crisis that’s been a long time in the making and, over a long period of time, it will ultimately take lives.”
New South Wales, the state bordering Queensland’s south, reported in February its first case of pneumoconiosis in a coalmine worker since the 1970s.
In the U.S., black lung disease has killed more than 78,000 miners since 1968, with $45 billion paid in benefits to the injured workers and their survivors, according to the Department of Labor. In China, it kills about 6,000 people annually.
“When I started in 1970, they said there was no more black lung in the mines,” Stoddart said in an interview from his home in Bundaberg, a town on the southern fringe of Australia’s sprawling Great Barrier Reef.
Even though he routinely returned home from work with his skin covered in a film of fine black coal dust that penetrated his clothes, he never thought of it damaging his lungs, he said. “No one gave it much of a thought, to tell you the truth.”
Coughing Up Blood
Stoddart shrugged off pain in his back as a simple pinched muscle during one of his shifts at Anglo American Plc.’s Grasstree mine in central Queensland, where he drove a mechanical shearer that cut and blasted its way along a dense wall of coal. But after coughing up a combination of blood and “some black stuff” led to two biopsies and a lung-function test in late 2015, he received the devastating diagnosis.
Many other sufferers are “too frightened to come forward for risk of losing their job,” Stoddart and other members of the Black Lung Victims Group said in a letter to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk that was tabled in the state parliament in Brisbane last year.
Sufferer Jason Bing, 46, who worked for 13 years in various mines across Queensland, is suing a group of past employers, including local units of Anglo American Coal, BHP Billiton, Glencore Queensland and Peabody Energy Australia, for A$2 million.
The claim alleges failure to provide safe systems of work at the mines and failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment or sufficient ventilation to prevent dangerous dust exposure levels, according to Shine Lawyers, the firm representing Bing.
BHP and Glencore declined to comment on the case while Peabody did not respond to emails and a voicemail seeking comment. Anglo declined to comment on the case. It takes its obligations to provide a safe work environment very seriously and operates in line with Queensland protocols to mitigate dust exposure for its miners, the company said in an email Friday.
Three law firms listed as respondents - Minter Ellison, Hall & Wilcox Solicitors and Williams Lawyers - did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment. Ashurst Australia, the fourth law firm named, declined to comment.
“We think there could be hundreds, if not thousands, of miners throughout Queensland who have it,” said Jo-Ann Miller, a state lawmaker from the coal town of Ipswich, who worked as a government relations officer at the Wesfarmers Ltd.-owned Curragh open-cut coal mine in central Queensland for years. “Many are retired and the only way we will know is if they go and get tested.”
Symptoms of black lung disease typically emerge a decade after exposure to harmful coal dust and those with mild disease usually have no symptoms, making early diagnosis difficult at a time when prevention is most effective.
In the early stages, small scars, or flea-sized nodules, begin to form in the lung. If dust exposure continues, these can develop into large masses of dense fibrotic scar tissue that restrict breathing, eventually leading to respiratory failure and death.
Miller, whose coal-miner grandfather died from black lung disease in the late 1960s, chaired a parliamentary inquiry into the re-identification of cases that found in May that there had been a “catastrophic failure, at almost every level, of the regulatory system intended to protect the health and safety of coal workers in Queensland.” The Queensland Resources Council, which represents the state’s miners, said in June it had been working with industry, the government and unions to eradicate black lung since it re-emerged in 2015.
To be sure, the incidence of black lung appears to have declined compared with levels in the past, indicating that coal mining companies reduced the risk of the disease amid a broader improvement in safety in the industry. But the danger wasn’t gone.
“There is no doubt that the entire industry — the coal companies, the union, the doctors — everyone thought it was eradicated,” Miller said in a phone interview. “People just stopped looking for it.”
One of the reasons was the assumption that coal-dust exposures were being appropriately controlled, said Tim Driscoll, a professor of epidemiology and occupational medicine at the University of Sydney.
“The connection between exposure and disease has been known for many decades, and it is very clear what levels should be below to eliminate disease — or at least to make it very, very unlikely,” he said. “So, there seems to me to have been a failure of exposure control.”
Driscoll also points to a litany of potential problems identifying cases:
- x-rays not being taken as needed based on exposure risk
- poor quality x-rays
- x-rays being taken, but never sent for reporting
- referring doctors not stipulating what the x-ray was for, thereby not giving radiologists clues to look for
- some radiologists needing specific training in reading and reporting films as specified by the International Labor Organization
Retiring coalmine workers will have the right to a full retirement health assessment, according to legislation that Queensland’s Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Anthony Lynham plans to introduce Friday.
Since January, the state government has made health assessments compulsory for all underground coalmine workers on entering the industry and again after every five years. It’s also strengthened respirable dust monitoring requirements — a measure that some mining companies have struggled to meet. Two Anglo American and two Glencore mines failed dust tests in the June quarter after not meeting government standards.
Although miners are required to take precautions such as wearing helmets fitting with air-filtering devices, black lung disease sufferer Stoddart said he found them cumbersome and impractical in the hot, humid conditions underground.
“It sucks in all the dust at the back and blows clean air over your face, but they’re real big, clumsy things,” he said, recalling that he would typically switch to wearing a simple hard hat whenever he stepped off the machine he drove.
Reflecting on what he could have done differently gnaws at Stoddart. For years, he took pleasure in working alongside his son in a job he planned to retire from at age 70, he said. Now, even routine tasks have become achingly difficult.
“Two years ago, I was underground feeling like a 40-year-old and fighting-fit — and now I can barely walk around the block,” he said. “I don’t know how long my life is going to last now.”